Cramps in the toes: causes, first aid and prevention

Krämpfe in den Zehen: Ursachen, Erste Hilfe und Prävention

Most adults know the feeling when a muscle suddenly and involuntarily tightens and spasms. The toes or calves are very often affected. It can happen both during the day and at night during sleep, during physical activity as well as while relaxing on the sofa.

Regardless of whether the entire foot or just individual toes are affected, the short, intense contractions are always painful. In this article, we will show you what can cause cramps in your toes, what you can do in an acute case and how you can prevent cramps in the first place.

the essentials in brief

  • A toe cramp is a sudden, painful contraction of the affected muscles. They can last from a few seconds to a few minutes.
  • There is no immediate cause for concern: in most situations, cramps are due to harmless causes and resolve on their own. Only in extremely rare cases do they indicate a serious illness.
  • The contractions can occur during the day when you are active or at night when you are asleep. In acute cases, stretching the muscle and relaxation exercises provide relief.

Definition: What is a muscle spasm?

Muscle spasms are prolonged, painful contractions of the muscle and occur in patients with and without medical conditions (1). People who are particularly affected are during or after intensive sporting activity or older people. Usually cramps are of short duration and end without external influences.

Sometimes they happen when the muscles are strained, such as during sports, sometimes when they are completely at rest, such as during sleep at night. In general, contractions can occur in all muscle groups, but certain parts of the body are particularly affected.

The vast majority of cramps are due to harmless causes. Only in very rare cases are systemic diseases behind it (2).

Background: What you should know about cramps in your toes

Although it is extremely unlikely that cramps in the toes indicate a serious medical condition, they are annoying. Here we give you some background information on this unpleasant phenomenon.

What Causes Toe Cramps?

The results of current studies indicate that muscle cramps can be multifactorial (3). The specific causes can often not be fully understood (4). Below we have summarized for you an overview of situations in which muscle cramps in the toes can occur.

Woman shows feet

Toe cramps can have a variety of possible causes. (Image source: Frank Vessia /

The most well-known causes of toe cramps include overuse of the muscles and an imbalance in the water or mineral balance of the body. There are also a number of systemic diseases, such as metabolic disorders, in which symptomatic muscle cramps can occur. We will go into more detail about these triggers in the following part.

In addition, side effects of certain medications or insufficient blood flow to the extremities can also be responsible for the development of cramps.

muscle overload

Researchers disagree on cramps that occur during or shortly after exercise. There is evidence that these are due to neuromuscular overload and muscle fatigue (3).

Poor posture, such as the relieving posture after an injury, can permanently overload the muscles and lead to cramps.

Changes in the water and mineral balance of the body

Other study results suggest that cramps result from a disruption in water and mineral levels in the body. Imbalances in electrolyte values ​​play an essential role in this (5).

The following situations can lead to a mineral imbalance, which results in muscle cramps:

  • sports (6)
  • pregnancy (7)
  • Heavy sweating (4)
  • Low fluid intake (6)
  • diarrhea or vomiting (5)
  • Undersupply of nutrients, e.g. as part of diets (8)
  • alcohol consumption (9)

If the absorption of minerals is limited, there is a risk of deficiencies in minerals such as magnesium, sodium chloride, potassium or calcium.

Sweating, for example during exercise or when the temperature is high, can lead to excessive loss of minerals and electrolytes through sweat (10).

An unbalanced or severely restricted diet also leads to insufficient intake of micronutrients, such as various minerals and salts.

In addition, certain medications can cause excessive water leaching and loss of these micronutrients. An example of this are diuretics used in liver and kidney therapy (8).

Certain clinical pictures

There are a number of conditions whose symptoms can include muscle spasms in the toes.

  • Thyroid Diseases (11)
  • Kidney Diseases (8)
  • Diabetes (12)
  • Neurological diseases (13)
  • Vascular Diseases (14)

As already mentioned elsewhere, toe cramps have harmless causes in the vast majority of cases. This means that they do not automatically indicate a serious illness. A conversation with your family doctor can clarify this.

Why do toe cramps occur when exercising?

They affect professionals as well as recreational athletes: involuntary, painful muscle contractions occur during training or a competition or shortly afterwards. Sports in which a monotonous load is carried out over a longer period of time, such as long-distance running, triathlon, football or cycling, are particularly affected.

The risk of muscle cramps increases with exercise.

That's why the contractions tend to be felt toward the end of a workout or competition, such as overtime in a soccer match.

It has not been finally clarified what leads to the cramps. There is some evidence that they are associated with water and mineral imbalances or are due to low electrolyte levels. When exercising, physical exertion and increased sweating can easily lead to dehydration and electrolyte depletion (10).

man jogging

Monotonous movements over a longer period of time, such as jogging, can lead to cramps. (Image Source: Chander R /

Neuromuscular causes are also often cited in research, such as failure of communication between nerves and muscles due to fatigue (4).

Why is toe cramps so common at night?

60 percent of all adults report having suffered from night cramps (15). They are a common cause of insomnia, especially in older people (16).

The muscles in the toes and calves are particularly affected. The fact that the painful contractions occur at night can be explained by the fact that the muscles move more frequently during the day and are therefore automatically stretched.

In addition, when you are awake, you instinctively react to signs of tension with spontaneous stretching exercises. In this way, a larger cramp can be avoided. This automatism does not work during sleep, so that those affected often only wake up when the muscle is already completely hardened.

According to a study, night cramps in the legs can be favored by certain health factors. These include high blood pressure, angina pectoris, stroke, arthritis, respiratory diseases and cancer. Symptoms of depression, obesity, and smoking can also contribute to the onset of seizures (16).

Which home remedies help against toe cramps?

Muscle cramps usually come on quickly and unexpectedly. In the table below you will find a list of various home remedies that can help.

home remedies Effect
water with a pinch of salt Drink at least two liters of water per day, more in warm weather or when you are physically active. The salt provides important minerals.
Tea made from lavender, lemon balm or rosemary The plants can be mixed or brewed individually as a tea. Drink 1 cup twice a day to prevent cramps.
Essential oils, such as rosemary or orange Relieve muscle spasms by rubbing the oil into affected muscles before bed.
almonds Serve as a snack with lots of minerals. It's best to eat three to six peeled almonds a day.
Apple Cider Vinegar Contains a lot of potassium, drink a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar mixed with a glass of water daily

These tried-and-tested home remedies provide first aid and relief. They help after an acute seizure and can also be used preventively.

Another effective but little-tested home remedy is cucumber water, i.e. the vinegar-containing liquid in which cucumbers are placed in jars. One study found that drinking this water can shorten the duration of a muscle spasm by almost half (20).

The effects are immediate, long before the water reaches the stomach and is absorbed by the body. It is therefore assumed that the sour taste in the throat reduces the activity of the nerve cells and thus has an antispasmodic effect.

When are cramps in the toes a case for the doctor?

As already mentioned, contractions in the toes rarely indicate a serious illness. It only makes sense to see a doctor if the painful spasms occur frequently and last longer than a few minutes, or if you also notice other unusual symptoms.

The family doctor will examine you for a mineral deficiency in your blood and, if possible, rule out other causes.

If necessary, they can then recommend you to a specialist who will take a closer look at your case.

Toe cramps: tips on how to deal with them

Research is just as divided on how to properly manage muscle cramps as on what causes it (4). Many tips and home remedies are based on anecdotal experience rather than scientific research.

Tips for emergencies

Below are ideas on how to treat acute toe cramps. It is advisable to investigate the cause of an acute seizure following an acute seizure.

stretching and massaging

Stretching helps with muscle spasms in the toes. The easiest way to stretch your toes is to sit down. While seated, grab your toes with one hand and gently pull them towards you. As you do this, push your heel away from your body so that the entire foot is stretched. In this pose, the muscles are stretched and the cramp is counteracted.

man stretching

Stretching the affected muscles provides relief from cramps. (Image Source: Alora Griffiths /

If the pain extends up to the calf, then a standing stretch is recommended. To do this, place your legs in a slight step position, with the cramping leg behind. Keeping the inside of your feet parallel, press the heel of the back leg that hurts into the floor. You should feel the stretch in your back calf.

Make sure to do all movements slowly, otherwise the muscle that is spasping can easily become overused and strained. Wait in each position until the spasm has resolved.

Alternatively, gently massaging the affected muscle will help. This relaxes the muscles and stimulates blood circulation.


Even if it is difficult at the moment of an acute cramp: try to consciously relax and breathe against the pain. Relaxation exercises are primarily used to control breathing, as breathing too quickly can further intensify the spasm.

Ideally, you combine a relaxing breathing technique with the stretching. This will help make the spasm milder and the pain more bearable.

Prevention of cramps in the toes

There are remedies you can use to minimize the risk of toe cramps. However, if the contractions occur frequently or are very strong, it is advisable to consult a family doctor or podiatrist.

Ensuring the mineral balance

In healthy people without a previous illness, a balanced diet and sufficient fluid intake usually cover all important minerals.

In certain cases, however, the body must be supplied with additional nutrients in order to establish a mineral balance. This is the case, for example, during sport, after excessive alcohol consumption and during pregnancy.

If you tend to cramp during exercise, isotonic drinks with a high electrolyte content can help (16). Special sports drinks, juice spritzers or coconut water are suitable for this. You should also warm up and stretch properly before the sports unit to prepare the muscles for the exertion.

Alcohol consumption also deprives the body of fluid and thus important minerals (17). It is therefore advisable to drink enough water when consuming alcohol so that the loss of fluid is kept to a minimum. This way you also avoid the hangover the next day.

Very often, magnesium is marketed for the prophylaxis of muscle cramps. However, the effectiveness of the mineral is only proven for cramps that occur during pregnancy. This is where magnesium provides relief by reducing the frequency and intensity of contractions (18). Whether magnesium also prevents cramps in other cases has not yet been scientifically proven (19).

Regular exercise

As preventative measures, exercise and stretching offer great benefits. Activating and stretching the foot and leg muscles several times a day can prevent cramps in everyday life.

You can also reduce nocturnal contractions by gently stretching or massaging your feet before bed.

Analysis of walking and running behavior

One way to prevent toe cramps is to analyze walking and running behavior. This allows any misalignments of the feet to be determined.

A doctor can thus determine whether the pressure on the toes and soles of the feet is unfavorably distributed when walking and is causing an overload.

Typically, a treadmill is used to perform stance, gait, and run analysis. The soles of the feet as well as the joints in the feet, knees and hips and their interaction are examined more closely.

If abnormalities are discovered during the examination, orthopedic insoles or shoes can allow a more even load on the foot and prevent toe cramps in the future.

care of the feet

If your feet tend to cramp, a little extra care can provide relief. Heat can be helpful here, for example in the form of a hot foot bath or a hot-water bottle.

Ensuring good blood circulation in the feet can prevent cramps. To do this, it is helpful to walk on uneven surfaces and thus activate the arch of the foot. You can achieve a similar effect with a gentle massage. Elevating your legs regularly also has a beneficial effect, as it relieves the blood vessels and relaxes the muscles.

Woman runs without shoes and socks on a tree trunk

Running over uneven surfaces stimulates blood circulation in the feet. (Image source: Michał Parzuchowski /

Comfortable shoes with high-quality soles also relieve your legs and feet. Women can do something good for their feet by avoiding heels that are too high. But shoes that are too tight or ill-fitting can also cause cramps. The best choice for both men and women are comfortable, well-fitting shoes with flat heels.


Scientific research has not yet been able to find any concrete answers either to the causes or to the correct treatment of toe cramps. In most cases, toe cramps are harmless. With the methods mentioned, such as stretching the muscle and relaxation exercises, they can usually be solved quickly.

You can also use simple methods to minimize the risk of a cramp occurring in the first place. Only if the symptoms occur more frequently or are very intense should they be examined by a doctor.


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